PFF makes it extremely difficult to put any stock into their grades
For the last several seasons, I have been tasked with reporting the Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Whether it be preseason games, regular season contests, or cumulative scores, the numbers associated with PFF are ones in which many fans seem to find interest. Notice I specifically said “find interest” as simply reading the numbers does not mean one has to agree with what they say.
But in only the second week of the 2023 NFL season, I find myself unable to simply give the same report from an obviously flawed and completely unreliable process.
Usually at this point of the article I would go into my typical PFF disclaimer about how fans need to remember that PFF is trying to put an objective number on a subjective topic. Their grades are merely the opinion of the one scoring the game. Although they do their best to have a highly informed opinion by watching each player on each play, it ultimately comes down to what the grader feels is happening.
Even though I never fully bought in the PFF grades, I respected the process of trying to break it down in the way they do. But now, they have produced some questionable results which are obviously affected more by a players reputation if their scores each week then they are there play on the field.
So instead of listing out all the players grades in two different articles with one on offense at one on defense, I am simply going to outline this week how the grades were so unrepresentative of what took place in the field. For some fair warning, to show this just didn’t come out of left field I will also be referencing some of the things I noticed from the Steelers previous game during Week 1.
times scores are a changing
I noted in the last week’s article that I saw something from PFF I’ve never seen before. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, I’m just saying it hadn’t been something I had seen or even noticed. Reporting the scores against the 49ers, I felt that PFF lost credibility by giving Nick Bosa the highest score on defense and Fred Warner the lowest. The eye test alone told you that Warner was so much more impactful in that game than Bosa who was mostly neutralized throughout. But after drawing that conclusion, I went back to write down the exact score for Warner only to see that PFF change the score from below a 60.0 up to a 64.4. I don’t have exactly what Warner’s grade was before because I didn’t need the exact number at the time and assumed it would be there when I returned. I just knew he was the only 49ers defender below a 60.0.
Wondering if this is something that might occur again, when the PFF scores came out for Monday night’s game I took a screenshot just to see. There were some interesting yet ridiculous anomalies which I will get to later, but one in particular was T.J. Watt only having a score of 72.9, and a pass rush score of only 63.7. When the score was compared to a certain member of the Browns what we will discuss later, there was a good bit of criticism and rightfully so. When I went back to check the PFF scores later, T.J. Watt’s score has been adjusted up to an 82.6 overall with a 71.7 pass rush score. They were also some minor adjustments in scores for Joey Porter Jr., Elijah Riley, and Levi Wallace.
With the scores not coming out until around midday on Tuesday, they are in the “pending review” process before this time. What is interesting is that the scores are reviewed and yet still require change. Perhaps this is not new with PFF, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it and with a significant difference.
Game scores vs. game impact
When NFL players are getting a high PFF score, one would assume they’re having a significant impact on the game. If looking at a wide receiver, you expect them to be making catches and getting yards. If it’s a defender, you would expect them to be making tackles, forcing turnovers, sacking the quarterback, or standing out in some positive way. For an offensive lineman, it might not be as obvious but you would expect that the players lined up against them are not being impactful in the game. It only makes sense that a player who is having an impact on the team’s success in a good way would have a high score and a player who is impacting the team in a bad way would have a low score.
But that’s not how it always plays out with PFF.
Too many times, a player with a reputation of possibly having a high score receives a high score regardless if he impacted the game or not. Also, there seem to be players that PFF “shows no love” and continues to give them low scores regardless of impactful contributions.
One example of where this is not coming through is in Week 2 where Myles Garrett had a higher PFF score than both Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt. For anybody watching the game, Myles Garrett had very minimal impact on what was happening on the field. Yet T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are pressuring the quarterback, getting sacks, forcing fumbles, and scoring touchdowns. Instead, PFF had a player who was mostly invisible throughout the night get the highest score of anybody on either team on either side of the ball?
At the same time, the lowest graded player for the Steelers in both weeks of the NFL season has been Dan Moore Jr. Knowing he would have a tough assignment the first several weeks of the season, Moore has gone up primarily against Nick Bosa and Myles Garrett so far this season. While this was not always the exact matchup, it was the primary ones for both weeks.
While Dan Moore has not been someone out there tearing it up, the level of his play has not been as the worst tackle in the NFL each week as PFF has him graded. In looking strictly at the numbers, if you were to tell Steelers fans that through two weeks neither Nick Bosa nor Myles Garrett were able to get a sack, I think they would be fairly happy with the performance of Dan More But because these beloved defenders by PFF must achieve high scores, they must score of the person they are going against low. But yet neither of these players had any significant impact on their respective games.
If the scoring system used by PFF allows players with little impact on the game to be graded the highest of anyone on the field, the entire system should be called into question.
Comparing apples to apples
To show more of the point that PFF has players who they love to score high and others who they want to continually give a low mark, check out these two different stat lines from Monday night’s game:
Player 1: 0 sacks, 1 QB hit, 2 QB pressures, 1 tackle, 1 missed tackle, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries
Player 2: 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 2 QB pressures, 3 tackles, 0 missed tackles, 0 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
Those who weren’t sure already, Player 1 is Myles Garrett from Week 2 where he had a 91.7 PFF grade which was the highest of any player on the field in the game. Player 2 is Larry Ogunjobi for the Steelers. But Ogunjobi, as typically done by PFF, received a very low score of 49.2 overall. Anyone watching the game could see that Larry Ogunjobi was impacting the game more than Myles Garrett. The stats even show it. Yet somehow the statistically inferior player has a grade which is 40 points higher than the other.
Does Not Compute
While they are mostly secretive about the exact formulation of how PFF comes up with their scores, sometimes the numbers just don’t make sense.
When looking at the above example of Larry Ogunjobi, his overall score on Sunday was a 49.2, but his individual grades of run defense (52.8), tackling (71.5), pass rush (60.5), and coverage (57.5) are very curious as none of them are as low as his overall score. But Ogunjobi brings another anomaly as somehow he has a coverage score of 57.5 when he is credited with having no snaps in which he was in coverage.
This is not the worst example from the game. Looking on the offensive side of things, Jaylen Warren was the Steelers second-highest PFF score with 71.6 overall. Warren had a high score in the passing game with a team-high 85.1, a 69.1 running score, and a 60.0 run blocking score. But another number is thrown in there which, although it does not appear to majorly affect his overall score, is setting off a red flag. Jaylen Warren was given a pass blocking grade of 5.4. But much like with Ogunjobi, he is credited with no pass blocking snaps. So Jaylen Warren had no snaps where his job was to be a pass blocker according to PFF, but yet he was terrible at it.
Well, Warren wasn’t that terrible at it because he was scored higher than Dan Moore Jr. who had a 3.5 pass blocking score despite giving up no sacks.
As you can see, rather than report the scores I just needed to get out my frustrations. Instead of listing everything else, I present this article instead in my own form of protest. Will a PFF scores article return next week? I have not decided. But it is very difficult to put time and effort into presenting scores which I feel were probably awarded before the game even kicked off in some cases based on how they already feel about certain players.